Election 2020

The Perils of the Tribal Echo Chamber

Facebook screenshot of James Hodgkinson, suspected Scalise shooter, holding a sign reading "Tax the Rich."

It has been the case for some years now that it is all too possible to enclose oneself in a bubble and never encounter contrary opinions. Contrary to the exaggerations of some talk radio hosts, there is no deliberate conspiracy on the part of “the media” to fabricate the news or falsely report events.

Reporters and columnists, like all other human beings, have their biases and are fallible. Mistakes happen and exaggerations occur. Sometimes they are deliberate; often they are subconscious.

No media outlets in this country have ever been “objective.” However, they also are not universally one way or the other. It must always be remembered that Fox News, talk radio, The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal are as much members of “the media” as are ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Some lean to the Right editorially and some to the Left. Some have a wider following than others; Fox News for years has been dominant over the traditional networks and CNN in its number of viewers.

All of the above outlets, and quite a few others, have to be distinguished from that other gift of the wild and woolly Internet, namely the wacko fringe sites which really are purveyors of false conspiracy theories and rumor as fact; for every Daily Kos there is an InfoWars. It is wise to steer clear of these and discount anything they report, unless corroborated in other, more reliable media.

To ignore this reality and concentrate only on those sites whose editorial point of view coincides with one’s own view leads to living in an echo chamber whose ultimate result is precisely the tribalism Erick Erickson describes. And it’s bad for both sides.

The Left has long been characterized by an irresponsible violence of rhetoric which inspires violent action. This can be traced back through Marx and Lenin to the French Revolution. In this country, its latest manifestation stems from the 1960s, the radical anti-Vietnam War effort which brought about riots and chaos and the infamous siege of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, the culmination of the activities of the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and other such radical groups.

None of these people have gone away; they’ve only become older, and some of them have taken over the Democratic Party. Their rhetoric of oppression and revolution, not surprisingly, has led to the “Occupy” movement, to cop killings justified by Black Lives Matter, and to the anti-Trump riots — and now to this most recent terrible assassination attempt on Rep. Steve Scalise.

What must be recognized is that the very same tendencies are increasingly evident on the Right. Many of the leading columnists and personalities on Fox News and talk radio are ex-student Leftists who, though they’ve changed their opinions — even if we assume, sincerely — nonetheless retain the Leftist mindset which demonizes the opposition as consciously evil, rather than mistaken.

Both the Left and the Right have moved in their ways to isolate people from opposing viewpoints (through such means as the so-called “safe zones” on the one hand, and conspiracy theories about “fake news” on the other), and the result is the chasm which now bifurcates this country.

The purpose of the Constitution is to provide a set of ground rules which everybody who wishes to participate in the political system must follow. Neither side can afford to ignore those rules; it is axiomatically never the case that the end justifies the means, nor that the seizure and retention of power “by any means necessary” can be countenanced. If either side reaches that conclusion, it has ipso facto declared war on the rest of us.

The United States is a violent society; to pretend otherwise is fatuous and foolish. What must be acknowledged, however, is that it is rapidly becoming increasingly more so. The former restraints which were once provided by religious institutions and the general moral consensus they promoted are increasingly diminished to the point of impotence, and this is affecting, and infecting, both sides.

The problem is a set of issues on which there was once consensus but which now brook no compromise. As one example, an abortion is the prevention of a human life from taking shape; it is not murder. If you believe in the sanctity of human life, then you do not sanction easy abortion on demand. If you believe it is literal, cold-blooded murder, you might consider assassinating an abortionist to be justifiable homicide.

If, on the other hand, you regard a fetus as a polyp and maintain that its excision is no worse than trimming one’s fingernails or removing a tumor, then one does sanction abortion on demand, for any reason, and life is cheapened all around. There is no discernible middle ground of compromise.

Before the ruling of Roe v. Wade, abortions were illegal in most states except in certain extreme conditions in which the mother’s life was in danger if the baby was carried to term. It was also true, in those days, that bearing a child out of wedlock was widely stigmatized and discouraged. Certainly the mothers of all the girls I knew growing up pounded into their daughters’ heads that boys were after one thing and the only protection a girl had was to hold out for the marriage certificate first.

The rebelliousness of the ’60s changed that, coming on the heels of the loosening of morals already evident in the Beat generation and the degeneration of popular music which began in the mid-1950s; the advent of the birth control pill made that rebelliousness practical; and the devastation it has wrought in American society is still ongoing. It is this cheapening of an act once considered – however ideally or hypocritically, in some circles – central to the sacred relationship of marriage which brought about the abortion-on-demand society.

Unless some sort of consensus is re-established, and soon, we are unquestionably headed for a literal, rather than a cultural, civil war. James T. Hodgkinson, the man who shot Steve Scalise, represents the John Brown of the 21st century, a man who was so consumed with what he saw as the absolutely incandescent righteousness of his cause and the absolute evil of his opponents that it justified any means necessary to bring it about.

This is a plea for both sides – both sides – to accept the import of the warning shots fired across the bow of our ship of state, seek that consensus, and step back from the brink before it is too late. Republicans do not hate old people, or anyone not of European heritage; they don’t seek to enslave the poor nor to destroy G-d’s green Earth.

Neither are most people on the other side engaged in an active conspiracy to subvert the United States, proletarianize the middle class, or bring about a violent revolution.

It’s all rhetoric; but rhetoric can be dangerous when a person already unstable enters the echo chamber and is knocked completely off balance, as Hodgkinson has graphically demonstrated.